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Historic Varsity Theater to be sold, renovated and reopened

The single-screen, independently owned theater operated for 80 years before closing in late 2018.


Prospective new owners of the Varsity Theater at 1207 25th St. plan to renovate the building and add a smaller theater on the second story. The rendering shows what the outside of the 102-year-old structure could look like. Special to the Business Record

A nonprofit arts organization plans to buy the now-closed Varsity Theater, conduct extensive renovations and reopen the theater as a first-run cinema that will show artistic, foreign-made and specialty films, the Business Record has learned.

The Des Moines Film Society has an agreement to buy the theater at 1207 25th St., said Ben Godar, board president of the group that formed about four years ago. Denise Mahon, whose family owned the theater for several decades, confirmed she is selling the property.

The group is seeking to have the property declared a local landmark, a move that will help the property’s new owners obtain historic preservation tax credits to help with renovation costs. Des Moines’ Landmark Review Board will consider the request at its meeting on Tuesday.

The Varsity Theater, located directly east of Drake University, is described as the Des Moines area’s oldest, single-screen, independently owned movie house. The Varsity “outlasted every competing metro movie house” and avoided being bought by movie chains, wrote historian James Jacobsen in an application letter to Des Moines’ Landmark Review Board.

Before becoming a movie house in 1938, the building was occupied by auto dealerships and a Coca-Cola bottling plant. 

During the height of its popularity, the Varsity ran movies headlined by John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it began showing foreign-made and artistic films.

The Varsity closed on Dec. 30, 2018.

The Des Moines Film Society’s long-term goal has been to operate a venue that shows a diverse range of films, Godar said. “It’s very important to us to preserve the Varsity as the last [single-screen, independently-owned] theater in Des Moines. We want to preserve it as a movie theater, which dovetails really well with our mission.”

Renovating and reopening the Varsity comes during a time when redevelopment is occurring in the Drake neighborhood. Nelson Construction & Development is completing construction on a hotel and plans to begin work soon on a four-story apartment and retail building. Both projects are on the south side of University Avenue directly across from the Drake campus.

In addition, Merge Urban Development of Cedar Falls is collaborating with Drake University to redevelop the area bounded by 24th and 25th streets and Forest and University avenues. The redevelopment excludes the Varsity Theater.

Godar said the renovation includes upgrading the current theater and adding a smaller theater venue on the second level.

Plans originally called kicking off a capital campaign in June with construction beginning in early fall. The worldwide pandemic upended those plans, he said. Now, the capital campaign will kick off later in the summer with construction beginning in early 2021.

Godar declined to say how much the renovations to the building are estimated to cost because details are being finalized. He also declined to reveal the purchase price of the property, which in 2019 was valued at $199,000.

The Varsity Theater, which opened in the 1930s, was the oldest operational single-screen independently owned movie house in the Des Moines area. It closed in late 2018. Photo by James Jacobsen

For several years, the building at 1207 25th St. housed a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Photo provided by James Jacobsen

History of property at 1207 25th St.

Local historian James Jacobsen has compiled the history of the property at 1207 25th St., directly east of the Drake University campus. Highlights include:

 – Structure built to house B&S Coal and Feed Co.

April 1917 
– New building constructed on site. University Motor Co. occupies the building. A showroom for up to 30 vehicles is on the first floor; the second floor is devoted to repairs.

October 1918- mid-1919 
– The building serves as a mess hall and canteen for the Student Army Training Corps, organized toward the end of World War I.  

– Two different auto dealerships occupy the building.

 – Coca-Cola bottling plant moves into the building, eventually supplying bottled Coke to a 14-county area. The plant outgrows the building and moves to a facility on Keosauqua Way.

– A family that operates the Varsity Theater around the corner on University Avenue, buys the vacant two-story brick building at 1207 25th St. A new Varsity Theater opens on Dec. 25, 1938.  

– Bev Mahon and Robert Fridley buy the Varsity Theater.

January 1958 
– Fire during remodeling results in the loss of the original upper marquee.

March-April 1973 
– Marquee replaced with one currently on the building.

 – Mahon has sole control of Varsity Theater.

March 2009 
– Bev Mahon dies. His daughter Denise Mahon begins operating the theater.

December 2018 –
 The Varsity Theater closes.


RELATED: Des Moines board approves landmark designation for Varsity Theater

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